UN Internet Governance Panel Urges Infrastructure, Education On Access To KnowledgePublished on 19 May 2009 @ 5:12 pm
By Catherine Saez, Intellectual Property Watch
Access to knowledge is a future challenge and a key factor for social and economic development but a balance needs to be found between the interests of rights holders and those of the public, said speakers at a high panel on access to knowledge during the World Summit on the Information Society Forum on Monday.
The 2009 WSIS Forum, being held from 18-22 May, is organised by the UN International Telecommunication Union, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the UN Conference on Trade and Development, and the UN Development Programme.
The UN-led WSIS took place in two parts, 2003 and 2005, and resulted in agreed-upon goals for improving the participation and benefits of developing countries in the information society. The forum is an annual event following up on the WSIS and includes high-level panels addressing critical issues to the WSIS implementation.
Access to knowledge is key to development but infrastructure is still a substantial challenge for developing countries, said Hoda Baraka, first deputy to the Egyptian minister of communication and information technology. One of the solutions is the cellular phone technology, she said, adding that Egypt now has 40 million mobile phone users.
Measuring access to knowledge in developing countries is difficult as no index has been created to date, said Baraka. Public data from publicly funded research should be shared, she said, but in the case of public-private partnerships, questions remain regarding ownership of intellectual property rights. Egypt does not have a framework on IP rights related to such partnerships.
Content also is of prime importance, said Abdul Waheed Khan, UNESCO assistant director-general for communication and information, and moderator of the panel. “Content truly makes the difference,” he said.
The role of libraries worldwide was underlined by Ellen Tise, president-elect of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), who described knowledge as a fluid mix of experiences, values, conceptual information and expertise. “Libraries are primary gateways to information and therefore an important vehicle towards the acquisition of knowledge,” she said.
She said libraries were key actors in providing unhindered access to essential resources, promoting the production of local content, thus encouraging indigenous knowledge.
Libraries are “a safe and trusted public space,” said Tise. They contribute to social development, and make a significant contribution toward achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals, she said.
Technology also is a key factor in access to knowledge, said Crawford Beveridge, vice president at Sun Microsystems.
The internet should be considered a utility, since “it is a social utility,” he said. Stakeholders must “make sure that internet remains open so that where we have access there is equal access for all people” without any kind of fees, he said.
Significant changes are necessary to improve people’s access to information, Beveridge argued. Broadband high-speed internet should be accessible to as many people as possible, through a computer or a cellular phone; open standards should be promoted so that nobody is locked out of the global system; and open source software should be publicised, he said. Dozens of governments have gone to open access software, such as Open Office, he said.
Baraka said that in Egypt, both platforms were developed: open access and proprietary software. She said that they had experienced difficulty with open access software in remote locations with under-trained professionals. In such cases, they had to revert to proprietary software.
The value of knowledge increases with its use, said Hans Hoffmann, honorary member of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), adding that fundamental scientific results must be available freely.
A balance between intellectual property rights holders and the public interest should be reached, and this should be consistent with the countries’ level of development, he said.
Although they are many challenges, with inequalities and a lack of balance between public and private interests, they is considerable progress, according to Hoffmann, who offered examples of collaborative open access public-private ventures
Adding to the infrastructure and computer literacy barriers, there is also the language barrier. Baraka said that only one percent of the internet content is in Arabic and that the Egyptian government is encouraging students, teachers and communities to publish content in this language.
Remote rural areas do not have access to libraries, let alone infrastructure and it remains a key challenge in rural communities said Tise. The high rate of illiteracy is also a problem that has to be addressed with programmes put into place by governments to train people to read, write and have some computer literacy training, she said.
Scientific articles were first published in paper, back to Gutenberg, the inventor of the mechanical printing press, said Hoffmann, but today we have better means and can store all kinds of digital objects, such as data, pictures, writing and drawings.
“We have to develop this, and we have to do it all together,” he said, “to go from the Gutenberg age to the digital age.”
The World Wide Web was open access, said Hoffmann, but it did not prevent business from growing, as “a lot of people have made business out of it,” he said. He advised not to be afraid of open source, urging listeners to “dare to be open.”
The WSIS was held in two phases: The first one in Geneva in December 2003 with the objective of establishing the foundations for an information society for all, and the second phase in November 2005 in Tunis, focused on putting into motion the Plan of Action decided during the Geneva’s Summit and to reach agreements in the fields of internet governance and financing mechanisms. A Tunis Commitment and Tunis Agenda were decided.
Catherine Saez may be reached at email@example.com.